Stanley Elkin Elkin, Stanley (Lawrence) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stanley (Lawrence) Elkin 1930–

American novelist and short story writer.

Elkin's purpose in writing, aside from indulging his love of language, is to offer different perspectives on, and new significance to, the unremarkable. He combines conventional and avant-garde elements in his stories to provide a freshness of image, character, and situation, and to demonstrate the value and interdependence of the traditional and the contemporary. His humor shows the often tragicomic nature and effects of obsession.

Elkin's heroes are bachelors and orphans who have sacrificed traditional family and community life for personal success. Though isolated by choice, these men attempt to compensate for their loneliness by substituting the love of crowds for personal relationships. Elkin's heroes are all salesmen in some way, often in transit, searching for fulfillment. Whether the protagonist is the franchiser Ben Flesh, the entrepreneur Leo Feldman, or the radio announcer Dick Gibson, America becomes a vast sales territory where one Holiday Inn is interchangeable with every other. The result is a feeling of being at home everywhere but having no real home anywhere. Success for Elkin's characters can range from James Boswell's wryly humorous determination to be a professional acquaintance of the famous to George Mills's thought-provoking intention to rise above the traditional ordinariness of his forebears and do something well in his lifetime.

Stanley Elkin won the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award for his novel George Mills (1982). Some critics have called it a "breakthrough" book because of its potential for enlarging Elkin's readership. The many writers and reviewers who have admired Elkin throughout his career have expressed satisfaction that he is finally receiving the attention and acclaim he has long deserved.

(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 6, 9, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 8; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)

Robert Maurer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Unlike his 18th-century namesake, the hero of this outrageous "modern comedy" [Boswell] is as undiscriminating in his admiration of great men as an autograph collector. His fate, he is told as a boy by an eminent psychologist (his first in-the-flesh celebrity), is to be a holder of coats, a sitter at the captain's table, a persona grata.

As a professional wrestler in a bout with The Angel of Death, Boswell suddenly realizes that everybody dies, and the knowledge propels him into a parasitic gluttony of the ego, a series of formless monomaniac adventures on a relentless search for VIP's, at whose feet he curls like a worshipful puppy. The world's richest man, history's first international revolutionist, a Nobel Prize-winning anthropologist, an Italian principessa—all these and others Boswell pursues even while he knows that the frailties of the great are as huge as the faculties that put them on top of the heap.

All of Boswell's mad frolics amount to very little, despite his inordinate tendency to philosophize, albeit tongue-in-cheekly, on the meaning of his bizarre existence. The novel becomes an over-long single joke, perhaps because most of us having adjusted to both our mediocrity and our approaching death in less frantic (and less interesting) ways than Boswell has, will find it impossible to project ourselves into the spot of a man admittedly so uncommon. "Do others feel their uniqueness as much as I do?" Boswell asks. No. "Mine is sometimes staggeringly oppressive," Agreed.

If Stanley Elkin ever dives into a subject more worthy of his talents, I hope that I am around to witness the splash. It should be a big one. For even as we detachedly read Boswell, it is clear that Elkin writes marvelously well. Humor explodes in bursts. Scenes crackle with gusto and imaginative fertility, and his people pop off the page with overabundant flesh. A book less atypical, more human, and he'll be signing autographs himself.

Robert Maurer, "Shaggy Doggerel," in New York Herald Tribune (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), June 21, 1964, p. 16.

Marcus Klein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The fierceness in Stanley Elkin's Boswell is actually in some good part borrowed—not from James Boswell but from Saul Bellow. Mr. Elkin's character named Boswell speaks the wheeling, exuberant language of Augie March, and he has Augie March's penchant for metaphysical categories. Like Augie, too, he is submitted to a succession of tutelary "big personalities," and then he ends by asserting his own contrariety. Like Bellow's Henderson, Boswell is gigantic, ready to prove in the flesh the agonies of the spirit. The likenesses are unmistakable. And indeed Boswell—who like James Boswell is a collector of the great—in an instance invites Bellow to his wedding, along with Faulkner and Hemingway. It is a way of paying debts.

But despite dependency, and despite his cute trick in naming a character James Boswell, Elkin does have the talents of obsession…. The novel is credibly and cogently about Life and Death, nothing less. Elkin's Boswell goes roving among great men—rich men, geniuses, miracle performers, powers—with high spirits attuned to his despair, in desperate search for immortality…. Death is inevitable, but Life is better. The great thing, he decides halfway through, is to get as much as possible for one's death, to have one's history matter; by the time he is done he has discovered that the secret of greatness in life is the active, unreconstructed, insolent ego. There is something question-begging about both discoveries, to be sure, but Boswell in this comedy he plays out is an inventive man on the stretch, and his life is in him. (pp. 761-62)

Marcus Klein, "Fiction North and South," in The Kenyon Review (copyright 1964 by Kenyon College), Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Autumn, 1964, pp. 759-63.∗

Raymond M. Olderman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I don't know if Searches and Seizures … is Stanley Elkin's best book, but I'll tell you one thing—it's terrific. I feel as if I should write this in capital letters. No. Not capitals, headlines, maybe: READ ALL BOOKS WRITTEN BY STANLEY ELKIN. That's a little pushy; but if you want to learn to embrace multitudes, or construct catalogues of the crazy, lists of the looney, read Elkin. You'll learn to see pimples on the earlobes of the enormous, and to occasionally try and write bad imitations of Elkin just to touch the totem of his vitality. Elkin's works are profound and filled with stuff and ideas and visions and all the stimulations that make a critic want to examine him in depth, but above all he is a first-rate writer, a man of deep, almost Shakespearean compassion for the life of the individual no matter who he/she is, and he has one of the best eyes for detail of anyone writing now. (p. 140)

His books are filled with sustained comic and serious metaphysical flights of rhetorical salesmanship on people, on crayons, on consumer products, on the look of a hairdo, on one man's range of moving experiences, on hard luck, on low places and dirty deals, on high places and "plenty of plentitude." And the extent of his observations is matched by the genuine vigor of his descriptions. His work is filled with lust, with hunger, with hot juices burning his brain to know more, to see more, to live. Can you imagine Walt Whitman, Henry James, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, and Woody Allen all pitching in?—Elkin is something like that.

Even when he contends with death, when he speculates on the future, when he examines the fuel that drives him, he doesn't think in terms of grand schemes and galactic dreams. He worries about all the details he hasn't seen…. Because Elkin's books have grown progressively more involved with wonder and mystery, they have continued, each in different ways, to grapple with death.

What is more important, for now, is to recognize that Elkin's love affair with life—in his novels—does not come out of political naiveté or faddish affirmation. It is wrung from a deep knowledge of human suffering given only to those who see in such detail that they are tortured into frantic searches and seizures…. It is hard to embrace a tortuous world. Few authors can look so closely at the texture of America and come away moved but still hungry for more. It is Elkin's great talent that when he sees plastic-motel America—consumer garbage, and piles of plenty, neon lips advertising the look of love, and all the detritus that most of us see and are repelled by—he also sees the human imagination, the human victims, the humans themselves standing somewhere behind the mess we all make. It can break your heart. But Elkin makes us embrace it all. (pp. 140-41)

The balance necessary for so close a look at contemporary life comes, in Elkin's books, from variations on his concept of style. On one level I mean that the energy of his rhetoric is not just manic; it is infectious…. In [another] sense, style has something to do with behavior. Everybody in Elkin's world seems to have some movie role in mind, but Elkin reveals these roles to us as a technique actor would reveal them—from accumulated outside detail that finally reaches inside. His best characters are not method actors—they are Olivier not Brando. But, the large supporting casts in his novels are often mediocre actors—types. We are given the set they work on, the costumes, the gestures, the clichés, grimaces, all the accumulated externals that shallow people mistake for inner personality or soul. Then we see them clearly: a mafia man who says softly, "it's Command Performanceville." We know how he looks, the gun under his camel coat, a businessman's look with only the minimum of lip movement. We have him. We've seen him in the movies, on TV—Mission Impossible. The Watergate Hearings, maybe. We really do see Elkin's characters everywhere, minor players, mostly letting their roles be thrust on them, never getting beyond the externals they imitate. They are Marcuse's one-dimensional humans, but to Elkin they are playing it the best they can.

On the other hand, Lawrence Olivier can play all the roles, and that is the secret of most of Elkin's manic heroes. They bear down on life by knowing all the roles, from outside in, from...

(The entire section is 1802 words.)

Doris G. Bargen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

All of Elkin's fictions grow from the interaction of the protagonist and his professional role. Professional concerns are the basis upon which the literary structure is built. The fictional structure is not, however, the linear or curvilinear path of the protagonist's career,… but rather the cluster of episodes which dramatize the development of the protagonist's character. Plot is secondary. (p. 198)

The hero's occupation is important stylistically as well as structurally. It is common enough for novelists to place stress upon their protagonists' profession, but it is an unusual aspect of Elkin's fiction that the profession is so often one bound up with spoken English. All of Elkin's heroes,...

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Joel Conarroe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The heroes (or antiheroes) of Stanley Elkin's novels have Anglo-Saxon names like Dick Gibson, James Boswell, and George Mills, but once they start to talk any traces of British reserve disappear. And how they love to talk! Once an Elkin character starts a spiel, in fact, there is no stopping him. Not that anyone would want to—the monologues, even those of the shaggy-dog variety, are ebullient, funny, and filled with insights about the sad intricacy of things in this "griefhouse" we inhabit.

Who is this compulsive storyteller, this Niagara of words? If you are not yet acquainted with him you are certainly not alone—Elkin has always been a writer's writer, admired by his fellow craftsmen but...

(The entire section is 748 words.)

Caryn James

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stanley Elkin once described his literary taste as delicatessen rather than haute cuisine. "It's that yen for the salami sandwich at the gourmet dinner … it is for the disheveled, what the cat dragged in, the rumpled in spirit," he wrote….

Elkin's taste, of course, is not as lowbrow as he claims. His greatest strength is the ability to combine high art and pop culture without shortchanging either one. His frequent subject is the regular guy with an all-American dream of making it big, but his sentences are often convoluted enough to give a Jamesian pause. This density of language may have kept Elkin off the best-seller list, but his natural audience is the one that appreciates John Irving and...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Frances Taliaferro

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The short and simple annals of the poor have often been the starting point for Stanley Elkin's wild, raunchy imagination. George Mills is no exception, but Elkin strains the rather plot-less framework of the novel by interpolating two long chapters that tell the stories of two historical George Millses: the first, who accompanies his noble master on the First Crusade and does some time in a Polish salt mine; and the forty-third, who (by chance) makes the acquaintance of King George IV and is sent on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople, where he happens into becoming a janissary and lives in a state of arrested horniness in the harem of Yildiz Palace. These two sections are not historical pastiche but...

(The entire section is 560 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"George Mills" is a character and condition—"blue-collar blood"—beginning with an eleventh-century English stable boy pressed into the Crusades, reappearing in the early nineteenth century when George IV sends George Mills the forty-third as courier to a Turkish sultan, and ending, the line now defunct, with a middle-aged St. Louis furniture mover who, like the George Millses before him, listens to the hardships of the rich and searches for an audience to tell "the sad intricacy of things," all the protocols and sorrows his blood knows.

"Because I never found my audience"—that's the reason Stanley Elkin's God in The Living End gives for destroying the world. Ironically, this 1979 fable...

(The entire section is 717 words.)